All of us sometimes “withhold” even in important relationships. I have spoken in the previous entries about why we do this, how we can recognize that we are doing it, how to decide whether to deliver a withhold and a bit about how to actually deliver it. I turn here to address how to make the withholds we give and receive valuable for their purpose, which is to enhance the relationship.
Some examples. Sienna has told Indigo that she felt excluded and put down by the way he interrupted her and took over at a recent business meeting. Olive has told Turquoise that the disorder in her house makes it hard for her to feel comfortable there. Kelly has told her partner Carmine that the way he is approaching her sexually is turning her off.
I assume here that, in all these cases, the person who delivered the withhold experienced the discomfort of withholding and came to believe that delivering the withhold rather than continuing to withhold promised a better relationship. I also assume that the delivery itself was done with care and honesty, even if not necessarily “perfectly.” So, what now?
In the workshop, the ritual is for one receiving a withhold to say, “Thank you.” To welcome the feedback is very different from what we may be inclined to do, namely, to deny or defend. Indigo may tell Sienna that he didn’t interrupt her or take over at the meeting. Turquoise might say that Olive needs to get used to the disorder at her house if she wants to be her friend. Carmine might simply pout and refuse to engage with Kelly.
The idea is for one receiving a withhold to validate the person giving the feedback. “Thank you” may be a beginning, but the validation may take many forms. Indigo may say, “I appreciate your sharing your experience with me. I need a little time to think about what you have said.” Turquoise might say, “I know it took a lot for you to share your perception with me.” Carmine might say, “Though I feel hurt and defensive, I am grateful to hear about your honest feelings.” The core is to express an appreciation for the sharing and a positive regard for the person who took the risk to deliver the withhold.
It is important to appreciate that validation does not mean agreement. Indigo may, for example, have a very different story about what happened at the meeting. But Sienna is unlikely to be able to hear that story unless she feels validated in her perceptions and experience. So, one expansion on validation is an invitation to the person offering the withhold to say more. Upon first hearing, Turquoise might think she fully understands Olive’s experience, but it may be helpful to invite more of the story. Perhaps there were several occasions on which Olive felt discomfort and Turquoise is aware of only one. In many cases, the one delivering the withhold has much more to say and won’t be open to much from the receiver until he or she feels heard.
Once the deliverer of the withhold feels heard, there is an opening for the receiver to respond with his or her own perceptions and experience about the matter. The receiver may have feelings that range from outrage at the injustice of the perception to shame at the justice of it, as well as many feelings in between. In responding, the receiver may do best to speak mainly of his or her perceptions rather than judgments of himself or the other, but this may be a challenge. Carmine may have a story about how Kelly herself encouraged him in his approach and how Kelly is now criticizing him unfairly. It may be hard to speak personally and not to accuse the other.
The conversation that ensues cannot, in my view, be scripted or ritualized very effectively. Avoiding judgment, speaking personally and validating the experience of the other with compassion are elements of a conversation that is likely to lead to mutual understanding. One other element will be crucial. When something bothers us about someone else, this is, in significant part, about us, not them. Sienna may be especially sensitive to interruption due to early family experience. Olive may have an excessive need for order, given her mother’s lack of housekeeping. Both parties need to be open to taking responsibility for their parts in the issue. Moreover, they would do well, however difficult it may be, to be open to reminders about this from their partner in the relationship. “Perhaps you are being too sensitive to my admitted flaws in approaching you,” Carmine might say at some advanced point in the conversation. And perhaps Kelly will be able to hear it and see it as support rather than criticism.
I am reminded at this point about John Gottman’s insight about marriage conflicts. Many of the most important ones cannot be resolved. Rather, the challenge of the partners is to live with difference with grace. Olive and Turquoise, for example, are always likely to have different feelings about order and disorder, but this can either ruin the relationship or be a source for learning more deeply about our differences and the possibilities those differences open to us. Perhaps the difference brought to light by delivery of the withhold can be, through the post-withhold conversation, a way of deepening connection and enriching the lives of both partners. This is the hope of those who take the risk to deliver withholds.
Even after this three-part treatment of withholds, I acknowledge that we have only outlined the basics. Much of the rest, as we remind each other at the workshop and in the community, we are likely to learn from practice.